Praetorium Honoris

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Red Ball

US Army Photo

"Is that it?"

"Yup, just a loose wire. Let's fire this thing up."

PFC Willis Jefferson climbed back into the cab of the truck and pressed the starter. The engine hesitated at first, then came to life with a roar.

"Sounds good to me. Hawkins, you ready to roll?"

"Yeah, let's get moving, maybe we can catch the convoy before nightfall!"

With that Private Moses Wiltshire got into the cab with Jefferson, while Private James Hawkins manned the .50 cal behind the cab. Soon the truck was rolling down the road once more, somewhere in France, headed towards the front.

They'd hit a pretty bad pothole a couple of miles back which, unbeknownst to them, had jarred a wire loose, causing the engine to run rough. Eventually they began to lose speed and the convoy commander had left them to catch up as best as they could. Now they were trying to do just that.

While sitting in the cab, Pvt Wiltshire had pulled out a map, he was looking for a shortcut. While they weren't supposed to deviate from the marked Red Ball highways, it was done from time to time.

"Hey, Willis, take the next right, that should take us around the next big town and we should be able to make up time and catch up to the convoy."

"What makes you think some damned country road will be better than a major highway?" Pvt Jefferson was a believer in the rules. Rules said stay on the designated route, the Army had figured all this out.

"Remember the last big town we went through, shot all to Hell, rubble and ruins everywhere? What are the odds that these little villages will cause us any delay?"

Pvt Hawkins yelled down from his gun mount, "Ya know Willis, Moses has a point, the road might not be as good but it surely won't be all tore up like some of these big towns have been. The Germans have been tearing stuff up, laying mines, and booby traps all over. I say we take the shortcut."

As the turn which Wiltshire had indicated was coming up, Jefferson had to decide soon. Wiltshire was right, the last big town they'd gone through reminded him of city traffic, back when he was a cab driver. Stop and go, hurry up and wait, Jefferson had been in the Army long enough to know, they didn't always get it right. So he slowed and swung the wheel of the big deuce and a half to the right.

"You keep me on the right path Moses, you get us lost and I'll shoot you before the damned Krauts get the chance!"


"Jesus L.T., are you okay?"

Sgt Brandt and his squad had dismounted from their truck and immediately started to sweep the area for mines as best they could. Probing with bayonets and being very, very careful. The halftrack that 2Lt Paddock and some of the men of platoon headquarters had been riding in had hit a mine. While the back end of the vehicle was mostly intact, the front end was a mess.

Once they'd cleared a path to the wrecked vehicle, Sgt Brandt checked the front, Sgt Fortin had been driving, with Sgt Draper riding next to him, both men were hurt, Brandt couldn't tell how badly.

The lieutenant had blood all over his field jacket, but it wasn't his, the man sitting next to him, platoon messenger Private Curt Lawrence had been hit by a lot of debris from both the mine and the left front fender of the halftrack. He was very dead. PFC Herman Shapiro, Privates John Myerson and Jim Romano had also been in the back of the halftrack. Romano and Shapiro were both mildly concussed, Myerson had a deep cut on one cheek, but was otherwise okay.

"It's not my blood Sarge, it's Lawrence's. I'm a little woozy and can't hear shit, but I think I'm okay. What about Draper and Fortin?"

Corporal Wilson's section was providing security while Brandt's section secured the area around the halftrack, Cajun had gone in to check on Fortin and Draper.

"Sarn't Fortin's dead L.T., Sarn't Draper will be in a minute, he's got more holes in him than Swiss cheese. There's no way I can stop that much bleeding."

Cajun was trying anyway, but to no avail, Sgt Dan Draper's wounds were fatal.

"Shit, Draper's dead Sarge." Cajun used the dead man's field jacket to wipe his hands of the man's blood. Though nobody liked Draper, he was one of their own. Cajun lit a cigarette and walked back to the truck, shaking his head.

As he stepped to the cab of the truck, there was an explosion. They hadn't cleared all of the mines.

As PFC Jefferson swung the big truck around a bend in the road, the three men all heard,and saw, the explosion to their front. PFC Jefferson slowly came to a halt as Pvt Hawkins began to search the nearby fields and woods for signs of the enemy. Pvt Wiltshire grabbed his carbine and dismounted.

"I think we're clear Willis, but I'll stay up here if you and Moses want to check those guys out." Hawkins stayed on the big .50, ready to engage as needed.

Jefferson was also clear of the vehicle, he'd grabbed his M3 "Grease gun" and was cautiously advancing on the parked truck and the damaged halftrack. There were at least three men still in the track, none of them moving, there were a few guys on the ground, weapons trained out, and a few more men down, not moving, though one was coughing and struggling to get up.

Cajun was still trying to clear his ears, the explosion had been on the other side of the truck, he was mostly unhurt, a few scratches on his legs from fragments, mostly though his ears were ringing and he had a headache. As he turned he saw two black men approaching, weapons at the ready. He saw another black man on a .50 cal up on the truck. It struck him that he'd never seen an armed Negro¹ before.

One of the men looked at him and asked, "You okay, man. You look a little shook up."

Cajun chuckled and said, "Yeah man, I'm all right, but I can't hear for shit right now."

Wiltshire said, "It's the explosion man, they f**k you up if you're too close. I seen guys dead back on the beach without a mark on 'em, but the explosion killed 'em anyways."

From the other side of the truck Jefferson spoke up, "You guys are gonna need a ride, this truck is messed up, and I got a dead man over here, no legs. Two more who don't look so good, I think they're dead too."

Brandt was trying to assess the platoon's losses so far. The lieutenant was out of it for the moment. The platoon sergeant and the platoon guide, Draper and Fortin, were both dead. One of the platoon messengers, Lawrence, was also dead. Looking back at the truck, Sgt Brandt saw the Red Ball truck, identifiable by the large red disk on the right front bumper, with a man manning a machine gun, and two more men, not from his platoon, on either side of the truck he'd just been riding in. Three more were down next to the truck.

"Shit. You okay L.T.?" The lieutenant had gone to ground when the last explosion had occurred, he was obviously shaken.

"I'm good Bill," he turned to look at his truck, he didn't notice the new arrivals, all he saw was three of his men lying in the road. "Go check them out. I just gotta clear my head, catch my breath."

The lieutenant looked really shaky, who could blame him? He'd been in a halftrack which ran over a mine, he had the blood of one of his men all over him, as far as he could tell, the platoon headquarters was decimated.²

Brandt walked back to the truck, saw the black PFC and introduced himself, "Hi, I'm Sgt Brandt."

"Hey Sarge, I'm Willis Jefferson, these your guys?" He said gesturing to the men on the ground, all of whom were apparently dead.

Brandt looked, sure enough, platoon headquarters was nearly gone, there on the ground were PFC Herman Jansen, Pvt Miles Hamblin, and Pvt Mark Brown. Hamblin had been the one to trigger the mine, it had thrown him across the road after taking both of his legs off above the knees. Nearer the truck were the bodies of Jansen and Brown. Jansen had been alive for a short while, he had been the man Jefferson had seen trying to get up, he had died soon thereafter. Brown looked untouched, like he wasn't even hurt. Brandt knelt down to check on him.

"Platoon HQ, not my guys, but I know these men." Sgt Brandt continued to check Brown for wounds.

"Don't bother Sarge, I've seen this before, sometimes the concussion kills ya and doesn't leave a mark." Jefferson shook his head as he said that, he was really sad all of a sudden.

"You were on the beach on the day, weren't you?" Somehow Brandt could tell, he'd seen black troops on the beach, handling supplies, manning barrage balloons. He wasn't a fan of the way the Army treated the colored troops. He'd known a few blacks back in L.A., back when he'd had pretensions of being a musician. But that was a long time ago. This guy carried himself like a combat vet, like he'd seen things no man wanted to see.

"Sarge, I hate to say it, but we gotta move. We got separated from our convoy and my sergeant's gonna have my ass if I don't catch up by nightfall." Jefferson looked at the western horizon, sunset was approaching in an hour or so.

"Right, right, can you give us a hand? I want to get these guys off the road, all we can do is leave 'em here for the Graves Registration guys. Nothing else we can do for 'em. Don't suppose we can get a lift to the next town?"

"Yeah sure Sarge, as long as you don't mind riding on ration crates."

Brandt looked around, what had been twenty men that morning was now down to fourteen. Six dead, not even in combat but in a rear area, German mines. This road was supposed to have been cleared by the engineers yesterday, guess they missed a couple.

At the moment he hated the engineers almost as much as he hated the Germans.

They all squeezed onto the truck, Pvt Wiltshire gave up his seat to the lieutenant, who was still badly shaken. Brandt was more than a little worried about the man. As Wiltshire climbed into the back of the truck with 2nd Squad and the remnants of platoon headquarters, he shouted, "Okay, Willis, we're good, let's roll."

Another day in France was over. Men who had survived the hedgerows were now lying alongside the road, miles from the front, but just as dead as the men who'd died back in the bocage. Brandt looked at Wiltshire and said, "This war can't end soon enough."

"Amen Sarge, amen."

The truck rolled on into the dusk.

¹ Pvt Tremblay might have used a harsher term, he was from Louisiana after all, but he'd worked with black men before he went in the Army. They weren't called "African-Americans" back then, to my knowledge. It was either "colored" or "Negro" in polite society.
² Yes, decimated means literally ten percent casualties, in the vernacular it's used to mean the loss of a lot of men.
Author's Note: Hat tip to Larry for the idea.


  1. I vaguely recall a civilian trucking company operating in R. I. (and probably elsewhere in New England, we didn't go far in those days) named Red Ball something. The trucks were mostly white with red lettering. This was between 1947 - 1959. Old Guns

    1. I think there's one now operating in Ohio. Or was one.

    2. Google shows there are or have been several Red Ball trucking companies, some preceding WWII.
      Glad you mentioned the Red Ball folks - logistics is as important if not more so than other parts of the green machine, especially during war time.
      Mines are one of the nastiest parts of war whether on land or sea. Impersonal and indiscriminate.

    3. I hate mines.

      Logistics are what makes everything else work.

    4. Out of bounds on the golf course at GTMO was the mine field. There was a bit of consternation after a hurricane came through and redistributed the mines. Old Guns

    5. There's a lot of flooding going on in Korea right now, there is some very real concern about mines being relocated by the deluge. (In some spots they've had upwards of half a meter of rain, in one day!)

  2. My Dad was drafted late in 1941, and the deuce and a half would have been relatively new.
    He told me that you can easily get one of those trucks stuck in Louisiana mud.

    Good post.

    1. Indeed it was, designed and introduced in 1941, over half a million were manufactured.

  3. I hope the truckers made it to their convoy OK.

  4. When I was a Company Commander in K-town, Germany, I had a deuce and a half that was two years older than me and I was 31 years old at the time. Those trucks seemed to run forever! When the hydro-vac for the brakes blew (and it happened far too often), the ride could get very, very exciting since, being Signal, our communications site were located on top of hills.
    Good story. I'm enjoying this series! - Barry

  5. Excellent story. It's as if you took several suggestions and ran with them all! :)

    Mines are always the gift that keeps giving. And it was not uncommon for groups of Germans to sneak back behind the lines and plant mines in 'occupied areas' (not that common, but it was a known tactic they used in retreat.) Or it could have just been one of those lucky instances where 1,000 vehicles previously managed not to hit one, kind of the vehicle version of 'the bullet had his name on it.'

    And, yes, nobody talks about the barrage balloon guys, but they were there wherever a big supply depot was set up, or a motor pool or anything relatively large and needed them. And quartermaster jobs. Some redlegs, too. And stretcher bearers. All because of Woodrow Wilson and his wish to divest the military of blacks. Yaknow, the older I get, the more evil and stupidity I can trace to that good candidate for top 5 worse presidents ever.

    And, yeah, 10 to 1 that halftrack will be cobbled together and back driving. Lose a wheel assembly? Well, here's another one that's missing the other side, hack the good wheel off and frankenstein the pieces parts. The mechanics did an awesome job of fixing, rebuilding, cannabelizing and just doing a top job of recovering and repairing broken military equipment. Another unsung hero of the invasion - the common mechanic, who, in any other army would have been an uncommon mechanic.

    Can't wait to see the next installment!

    1. Well, there were a LOT of good suggestions the other day.

      Part 1 is on the Fiction of the Chant page as "The D-Day Series," for Part 2 the name will be the "To The Rhine Series." As for book title(s), I'll wait and see.

      American mechanics used to be amazing, now too many of them rely on a computer to tell them what's wrong. First started seeing that on the F-16 back in the early '80s. Now cars are the same way.

    2. Relying on computers - had a coworker, who did his own vehicle repairs, was absolutely amazed at a gas station mechanic who identified a sputtering engine problem by just listening to it. Coworker only used instruments to diagnose things.

    3. There's still some of the old school mechanics around.

  6. A fillum you may find interesting, apropos mines: "Land of Mine".

    Tech don't unscrew the top fuse off Tellerminen, that's a good way to paint yourself across the landscape. Apart from that, excellent movie. Also, excellent writing and good story, keep it up.

    1. I'll have to track that down, the Danes are pretty good with war movies.

      Good to know about the Teller mine, I love those little details!

  7. One small note; those ring mounts are usually over the cab and the gunner has to stand on the seat. One could move the pintle to the rear of the ring and stand in the bed, but I'm pretty sure the bed would be FULL of supplies.
    Looking to be helpful, I've enjoyed every bit this far!
    Boat Guy

    1. Yes, Private Wiltshire is kinda squeezed in there with Private Hawkins on the .50 cal. He's hitching a ride to a new posting.

      That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it. 😉

      Yes, from the position of the ring, he needs to stand on the seat. Good eye Boat Guy, good eye!

    2. Not just eye, Sarge; I've stood in those rings.I'm pretty sure they're still in use, they certainly were in the 70's.
      The Red Ball is yet another American Epic. I've often wondered if those guys had "A-Drivers" or just had to muscle it on through.
      GREAT STUFF, keep going!
      Boat Guy

  8. I really despise that a disclaimer is used every time a now disused term is used for black people. You're exactly right that negro was a polite term. Now that same term is said to generate such offense, even hatred.

    A few years ago I was on the website of an aviation museum which allowed for comments. The WWII German aircraft sported a swastika. Some black woman began to vehemently complain that 'notsi' symbols were displayed. Mind you, this was a museum webpage. I am in complete opposition to censuring history in any way.

    1. I get that, but the word you refer to is not one Cajun would use. I mention it only in passing.

  9. Not that I complain all the time.... I too think this episode is well told and good coverage of the lesser known tributes to logistics. An army travels on its stomach. Bullets and beans, not to be overlooked, as important as front line units.

    1. In some ways, at some times, more important. Especially in a highly mechanized army like the American.

  10. (Don McCollor)..David Colley's "The Road To Victory" gives a good account of the Red Ball. The introduction gives a moving picture of the effect of almost total air supremacy and the power of the Red Ball in the fall of 1944: "The sky was empty and as far as the eye could see ahead and to the rear, the descending night was hauntingly pierced by the headlights of hundreds of trucks snaking along the highway"...

    1. Our logistical efforts in WWII were nothing short of amazing.

  11. (Don McCollor)...A minor nit, Sarge. "crates of C-Rats". I think the term dates from Vietnam. Never have ran across it in WW2 accounts. "rations" or "C-rations" might be better...

    1. GIs have been shortening the names for things since the Punic Wars. But I'll change it as I don't have a good source to prove otherwise.


    1. Never seen that film, I've seen stills from it.

  13. Lengthy discussion of rations history on Wikipedia. They had both C and K rations fairly widely issued in WW2. In the QM world, B rations were unprepared food to be prepared in mess halls/field kitchens.
    Troops may have used either "rations" or "C-rations" in my opinion. During Vietnam era us USN guys who had occasion to eat them always called them C-rats. And, yest, trading for the "best" items was rampant.
    The Army truly "marches on its stomach", and they must have been extremely happy, given the "Bitching soldier is a happy soldier" criteria.
    John Blackshoe

    1. Not all C-Rations are created equal, some were okay, some not so much.

      USAF on Okinawa in the '70s, a typhoon would be on the way, we'd be sheltering in the barracks with Cs provided. Nothing to heat them with, but hey, it beat going hungry.

  14. I was thinking that those "short cuts" so near the front could kill you. Although they didn't take a "short cut", but rather, when faced with the fork in the road, took the wrong one, that Army Air Defense unit in Gulf War 1 ran into Iraqis.

    Without the supply guys, an Army stops.

    1. Shortcuts aren't always a good idea.

      Professionals study logistics as the saying goes.

  15. (Don McCollor)...(I think the account is from Gulf War 1). A pair of HEMTT trucks had gotten lost and out in front of everybody else. They had parked nose to tail for the night. An Abrams spotted them broadside on in thermal that blurred the two trucks into one. The combination looked big and nothing like a US vehicle. The tank unleased a HEAT round at the midpoint of the target that passed through the gap between the two. The sky and radio were suddenly full of friendly recognition signals...

    1. Friendly fire, it ain't.

      New underwear for the kids manning those trucks!


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